Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tuku, Camp & Montana

Tsoka itsimba – Oliver Mtukudzi (28 Aug 07, Heads Up)
Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi hails from a group of people in Zimbabawe (formerly Rhodesia) who speak the Shona language. He has been singing professionally for three decades. On Tsimba Itsoka (means "No Foot, No Footprint" in Shona) Tuku uses the smokey timbre of his voice combined with the elegant blend of the traditional, polyrhythmic sounds of African music and Jazz to sing about challenges affecting the daily lives of people. It's smooth.
In an interview with World Music Central Mtukudzi describes his album, " Each person is moving on a different path through life. Some are traveling in a positive direction, while others are traveling in a negative direction. But everyone leaves their mark on the world, no matter how big or small …what kind of footprint are you leaving behind, based on the life you're living now? And what would that footprint look like to you if it were pointed in your direction, or in the direction of someone you loved? " If only some our leaders would look in the mirror and ask these same questions.

Camp Meeting – Bruce Hornsby (7 Aug 07, Sony)
Bruce Hornsby has had an interesting career. From his roots as the keyboardist in a frat house to Grammy winning performer Hornsby has had a little taste of everything music; sessions musician, part of Sheena Easton's touring band, pop icon in the latter half of the 80s, Grammy winner (more than once), Grateful Dead keyboardist, producer of Leon Russell's bluegrass albums, co-wrote "The End of Innocence" with Don Henley, "The Way It Is" has been sampled by numerous Rap artists, a bluegrass project with Ricky Skaggs and now this release of Jazz music. In other words he's been around.
Camp Meeting is a collection of songs penned by some of Jazz'z greatest legends (Monk, Davis, Coleman, Coltrane, etc.) and beautifully executed by Bruce on piano, Christain McBride on Bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Hornsby has always incorporated the Jazz sound into his solo projects and music writers track this latest effort back to his stint with the Dead. Evidently Bruce and Jerry Garcia pushed each other to expand musically. Don't expect to hear Rainbow's Cadillac, Jacob's Ladder or Sunflower Cat. This is a Jazz album. And it's a very good Jazz album by a trio of great musicians.

Montana: A Love Story – George Winston (12 Oct 04, RCA)
OK, so this album isn't exactly a new release. However, it's new to me so please cut me a little slack. I've been a big fan of George Winston's stuff since the mid 80s. Back then I made a two week trip on a tug. The AM/FM radio didn't work but the cassette player did. We had Dire Strait's Brother in Arms and George Winston's December. Even though it was April I listened to December at least 100 times that trip. I still love that album.
I don't know how I overlooked this disc because I have every Winston release (some on vinyl.) And Montana: A Love Story is very good. This is Winston's tribute to his childhood home and, as luck would have it, solo piano at its best. It's good to spin when you're sitting around with an empty head or when you want to hear an accomplished musician play a nice selection of tunes. And it makes a wonderful soundtrack for many activities ( i.e., great background music.)

More to follow...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Music

You’ll probably notice that I used the “C” word, not exactly proper behavior in this politically correct time. God forbid I exclude a group by talking about the end of the year holiday that my family celebrates (oops, I said God, apologies to those of you who recognize a different supreme being/force/energy or none at all.) Any way…I did not grow up celebrating Kwanza, Hanukkah, Solstice or Festivus so it’s more of a challenge for me to recommend selections for those holidays. And since this is my blog I’m making a conscious choice to talk about Christmas music. It doesn’t mean that I have any less respect for those of you who choose to celebrate Kwanza, Hanukkah, Solstice, Festivus, etc.

At this time I should tell you that my intention for this week’s article was to compile a comprehensive list of the best Christmas music available, a daunting task. I can’t help it. My obsessive compulsive disorder compels me to approach all my projects this way. Fortunately for me my ADD kicks in shortly after I begin the task and as I get distracted I save myself a lot of work.

As many of you have determined there is an abundance of Christmas music for sale. Some choices are great and some not so much. (I have this vision, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Special Past, of Cher singing O Holy Night like it was Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.)

Here’s a breakdown of Amazon’s ten, best selling Christmas CDs.

Noel – Josh Groban (9 Oct 07, WEA/Reprise)
13 tracks of standard Christmas tunes by the Grammy winning, mega-talented, classical cross-over artist. Unfortunately he sings the tracks like he’s performing selections from Tosca. His voice is great but it’s a little stiff. It lacks the warmth of Andy Williams or the jolliness of Burl Ives. Christmas songs should feel like they are being sung by people wearing sweaters standing in front of an appropriately decorated hearth. Not by a guy wearing a tux standing on a stage above a symphony pit. Sorry Josh but it’s a little too formal for my liking.

Let It Snow - Michael Buble (19 Oct 07, WEA/Reprise)
Buble’s EP of six Christmas songs is nicely produced and he’s approached it with his trademark, swinging sound. While he’s closer to the sweater and hearth scenario mentioned in the Groban review, I have this visual of Mr. Buble holding a brandy snifter and a cigarette ala Dean Martin.

A Christmas Celebration – Celtic Women (3 Oct 06, Manhattan Records)
This is nice and these gals can sing. I particularly like Ding Dong Merrily On High and Christmas Pipes. I have to warn you. Some numbers lean a bit toward a New Age style (think Windham Hill.)

One Chance – Paul Potts (19 Sept 07, Sony)
Not really a Christmas album. It’s mainly an opera greatest hits disc with a few Christmas tracks (O Holy Night and Silent Night.)

Christmas Song - Mannheim Steamroller (9 Oct 07 American Gramophone)
Has Mannheim Steamroller, aka Chip Davis, ever done anything beside Christmas albums? Just kidding, they did a Halloween disc a few years ago. These tracks, mostly instrumental, are a melding of orchestral and electronic instruments and it’s way too syncopated for me. It’s like a Miami Vice Christmas album.

James Taylor at Christmas – James Taylor (2 Oct07, Columbia)
I love James Taylor. I’ve seen him numerous times. He’s a great songwriter, wonderful musician and a consummate performer. With the exception of River, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Who Comes This Night James misses the mark due to his arrangements. His blues-up approach to Jingle Bells is really bad. This is not what I look for in a Christmas album!

The Lost Christmas Eve - Trans-Siberian Orchestra (12 Oct 04, Lava)
I didn’t know Meatloaf did a Christmas Album!

Wintersong - Sarah McLachlan (17 Oct 06, Arista)
Sarah has done a nice job here. She has the right voice for Christmas songs. I like her take on some of the more traditional songs. She dresses them up a little but stays true to old forms, mostly. Song For A Winter’s Night is my favorite track.

The Christmas Collection - Il Divo (25 Oct 05, Sony)
Again, the classical crossover guys singing Christmas songs like the libretto from an opera, they show emotion in the presentation, but it’s too over-the-top for Christmas music. Stick to Puccini fellows.

I don’t wish to be critical (well actually I do), but I have a very specific idea of what good Christmas music should sound like and I’m sad to say that most of these miss the mark. I’m a little disappointed, but not surprised, that the record labels have taken advantage of their big attractions by having them do a Christmas album. Just because you sing great Opera or Jazz doesn’t mean you can sing Christmas songs.

My picks: for Christmas Music:

White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1 June 95, MCA)
Older recordings show their age but Bing is great!!!

The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole (27 Sept 07, Sony)
Who does a better version of The Christmas Song?

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra - Frank Sinatra (18 Sept 07, Capitol)
The Chairman of the Board shows how it’s done.

A Very Special Christmas – Various Artists (25 Oct 90, A&M)
How can anyone trim the tree without Bon Jovi singing Back Door Santa?

Complete Christmas Collection – Vienna Boys Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal College Of Music Chamber Choir et al. (13 Aug 91, Sony, 4 CDs, out of print)
It picked this up at Costco years ago and it is one of my favorite Christmas sets. It has excerpts from The Nutcracker and Messiah as well as lots or traditional Christmas songs including my all-time fave O Come O Come Emanuel.

December – George Winston (25 Oct 90, Windham Hill)
Amazing solo piano versions of Christmas classics!!!

A Winters Solstice (multiple volumes) – Various Artists (1985-, Windham Hill)
New age recordings of traditional and very old school Christmas music.

Christmas Remix : Holiday Classics Re-Grooved – Various Artists (21 Oct 03, Six Degrees) If you liked the originals by Bing Crosby and Mel Torme but felt they needed a little more drum & bass then this is your Christmas record.

With the exception of the last two sugestions I’m pretty traditional. I do appreciate new versions of the older songs, but stick to the basic format & melody. The original arrangements are good and performers who choose to depart from that formula do so at their own peril. Like the man says, “If it ain’t broke…”

Please enjoy the holiday season, regardless of how you choose to celebrate and permit me to extend my best wishes for a great New Year!

More to follow…